Brent Toderian is a Canadian thought leader in advanced urbanism, city planning and urban design, with more than 20 years’ experience. He has worked as the chief subdivision neighborhood planner in Calgary and the chief city planner in Vancouver; he worked on the planning and design of the 2010 Winter Olympics; and he consults with places around the world, including Copenhagen, Denmark; the Gold Coast, Australia; Helsinki, Finland; Medellin, Colombia; Oslo, Norway; and New York City. He was interviewed for Around by contributing editor, James Lynch.
Around: What I am hoping to do today is talk with you about cycling infrastructure in cities, how it’s been changing over the last six months and the position we find ourselves in globally, and what has been done to change how people approach urban planning, design and cycling in cities. So, just to start with the big changes, the momentum swings that we have seen in the last six months [because of the Covid-19 pandemic] when it comes to designing our cities and getting people on bikes….
Brent Toderian: Well, we might want to start thinking about two stages of revolution, or boom, over the last six months and maybe the last six years. There is poetry to using the number “6” in both of those but the truth is it’s probably been an urban bike revolution in cities in the last five to 10 years. I’ve been observing this, and that’s fast by city-building standards. That within the next five years, maybe even between five to 10 years, cities around the world could be transforming their thinking, their culture, their mindset, their skillset and ultimately their infrastructure and land-use planning around being more bike friendly. Not just more bike friendly but actually bike friendly as a way of getting around, not just as a source of recreation or exercise, but as a mobility choice, an attractive, convenient and viable mobility choice.
We have been talking about that bike boom for years now, for at least five years, and how much it’s been changing cities. All of that seemed really fast by city-building standards. Then we have this five- to six-month period during the coronavirus pandemic where we’ve got a bike boom that makes the old bike boom look downright slow by comparison, because now we are seeing what “fast” really means. When you have a legitimate crisis, and bike infrastructure and bike accessibility becomes a major part of the conversation about how to address the crisis. And so we are seeing conversations vastly accelerated. Things that were planned over five years are happening over weeks in certain cities. Cities that have never had serious political conversations about transforming lanes of car traffic into lanes for biking and walking are now doing it, at least temporarily. And they are also considering street space for other things—physical exercise and social interaction, outdoor seating space to save restaurants from oblivion. Street space is being reconsidered for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is for safe bike travel, bike infrastructure for bike transportation, so all of this is happening incredibly quickly. But I want to put it into the context of the bike boom we were already in, which was fast by usual standards, but seems slow now with the transformation we are seeing during the pandemic.
Around: What solutions does biking give for the very specific problems of Covid-19 that we are seeing around the world that has fueled this uptick in the speed of this great change?
Toderian: It really just super-inflates the conversations we were having before about the problem, with how much space we had surrendered to cars and how little space that left over for everything else, including walking, biking and transit movement.
When we have given away so much to the car, we have created a level of car dependency and we make it hard to make anything else practical or enjoyable as other ways of getting around. That was noticeable before. That was a major issue facing cities before, but during the pandemic, when suddenly, in addition to our regular spatial challenges, we had to stay 6 feet, or 2 meters, away from each other; that really hyper-accelerated the conversation and made it even more obvious how little space there was left over for everyone else after surrendering to the cars.
So, whether it’s walking or biking, whether it’s safe transit ridership, whether its outdoor seating space, even outdoor retail-selling space to keep small businesses and businesses afloat, the pandemic just made everything feel even more tight. So it took a pre-existing condition, if you will, to take a phrase popular in United States medical conversations; we had a pre-existing condition in our cities that the coronavirus made even worse because we have to stay even further away from each other in these tight, finite spaces left over from surrendering to the cars.
Around: So, over six years or so, this momentum has swelled, and now we have the pre-existing condition to really start taking action, making some of these changes that maybe the political climate did not support in the same way it did five years ago, but now the situation has changed. Are people ready for some change?
Toderian: At least temporarily. And the real question, particularly in North America, is, will that appetite to rethink road space, street space for anything, including for bikes, will that survive the end of the pandemic? Or will we have just a quick going back to “normal,” the old normal? And let’s be clear, we could end up with a much worse normal if this narrative of a fear of viral spread makes people more interested in driving a car than taking a bus. We could see levels of car-related gridlock like we’ve never seen before as this transit-versus-cars safety issue plays out.
Bikes have become particularly important because if people in the short term are afraid to take public transit, and I think it should only be a short-term thing, if they switch to bike trips, that can actually be a benefit to cities. Any transit trip that becomes a biking or walking trip is actually a net improvement in the way cities function. But any transit trip that turns into a car trip is a significant negative detriment to the ways cities function.
So, this narrative really matters, in particular, around the future of public transit and in the short term what those transit trips become. I stress short term because there is no reason why any impact on transit should be anything but short term, unless we colossally screw up and invest massive amounts of money and space into more car infrastructure because of this narrative, so that people will want to drive more, and we in fact create a self-fulfilling prophecy where people drive more in the long term because of that infrastructure and space allocation for cars.
It’s very, very important that the decisions we make in this context of fear of viral spread, that we don’t end up actually making our future worse by making driving even more likely as a result of our actions and where we put our money in the economic stimulus that is about to happen.
Around: As some cities have started to address the need to de-crowd public infrastructure, public transportation, what are some of the low-hanging fruit, the initial temporary infrastructure changes, that cities in North America or the world over have made to try to attract people off of crowded busses, crowded trains and onto bikes instead of their cars?
Toderian: The starting point is that none of this would have been possible had we not reduced the number of trips, period. That’s the work-from-home piece, how much of that will stick? That’s being hotly debated already in city-building circles. There are some that are saying now that companies and individuals have invested in the technology and skillsets to work from home, to work virtually, to have virtual meetings, now that we have made that investment we are not going to want to waste it, so of course we are going to work from home and have more virtual meetings even once the pandemic is over. So that is going to be a very good thing, specifically if transit loses ridership, because of fear of viral spread.
On the other hand, there is the fear from the perspective of many that, to put it in a lazy way, everyone who is working from home hates it and is going to want to run screaming back to the social life of the office. So, we are kidding ourselves if we think this is all going to stick. That’s the other perspective that’s playing out in the debate right now. But certainly, none of this mobility shift during the pandemic would happen if the number of trips had not substantially dropped because of people who were working from home.
On top of that you’ve got big hits in public transit, a lot less people using it, and a number of those who were still commuting shifting to biking and walking. We have seen significant upticks in biking. We have seen significant upticks in purchasing of bikes—a golden age for bike shops and bike-repair shops as bikes become popular again, including with the people who haven’t biked in decades, or haven’t biked at all. Which, by the way, is seriously connected to how safe we need to make the infrastructure, because we cannot underestimate how many people out there trying to use the infrastructure are not necessarily experienced with biking. Which means the biking infrastructure has to be even more safe than it probably has been in the past.
So, you’ve got these, you’ve got a drop in the number of trips, you’ve got a shifting in trips from transit to walking and biking, and you’ve had a lot less people driving. But they’ve been speeding more than they were before, and that was actually making it dangerous for people to walk off the sidewalk or ride a bike in the lane, because cars were actually more dangerous even though there were fewer of them.
So, you had all these things playing out and translating into low-hanging fruit like taking the land from cars and giving it to buses, giving it to bike lanes, giving it to walking lanes for exercise and mental respite. It could be a pedestrianization or transformation for bikes of an entire street, or just one lane shifting of the curb temporarily, it could be taking away the parking lane and ultimately seeing it for transportation. It was about getting our essential workers to work safely or getting us all to the grocery store to get our groceries when we were safely physically distancing.
That was happening early as a transportation piece, then it became a consideration for things like outdoor seating. And sometimes those things would push and pull with each other. Do you rethink the space for outdoor seating, for transportation, or both? I actually noted that many of the cities that were reluctant to reconsider car space for bikes, or for walking, or for safety, exercise and mental respite often, because of pro-car ideology, those same cities were more willing to reconsider street space to allow outdoor seating to save business. I noted that so-called right-wing cities, if you will, that weren’t doing the right thing for mobility and people, were doing the right thing for businesses, which of course are still people too.
Whatever the reason was for reconsideration of space, I was glad to see it, because we have many reasons to reconsider the amount of space we had surrendered to cars. And we are seeing those different reasons playing out in streets, and sometimes even on the same street as maybe cycling or pedestrian space now competing with outdoor-seating space.
Around: I know, when I have a lot of family who don’t ride bikes, like I do presently, and hopefully they would if there was more infrastructure, but a lot of the things I hear from them if I’m riding in the car with them somewhere, is people in cars complaining about people on bikes. But as someone who bikes places, I know that I am not searching for a parking spot when I get there, and I know I am not taking a parking spot away from someone who arrives in a car. How does having more people on bikes benefit people who, for whatever reason, can’t or choose not to ride a bike in a city?
Toderian: Well, the fact is, this is not an ideology, or an opinion, this is a fact from an expert on cities—the more people bike in cities, the better the city works for everyone, including drivers. This narrative of bikes versus cars is not only unhelpful it’s inaccurate. The one thing we know is, if everyone tries to move in a car in any city, even a low-density city let alone a place like Manhattan, if everyone tries to move by car nobody moves well. Cars take up too much space. We have to spend massive amounts of money and tear down remarkable amounts of a city in order to actually make space for all the car movement. And, guess what? The more space you give to cars the more people who drive, and you end up in the same congestion after spending billions.
So, the narrative that this is cars versus bike, anyone who says that, it’s an indicator for me of how little they know about cities, or even just geometry. And I say this as someone who is not a bike activist. I am not even a bike advocate. What I am is a city expert, a city maker. I am an advocate for better cities and an expert who actually knows how to achieve better cities. So, I came at the bike question from that lens. And I actually find it often unhelpful when car advocates are debating with bike advocates about the relative merits of their object: the car or the bike.
For me, my object is the city. My object is society. My object is how we all work together better, more successfully in every possible way. We can define that from economic success to social equity and racism, to climate emissions, etcetera. Every possible way we measure success, the more we ride bikes in our cities instead of driving, the better it is for public interest. It saves money both in infrastructure and public health costs. it reduces emissions substantially. It makes us healthier and live longer. There are all sorts of ways that it benefits the public interest.
So, this incredibly lazy and uninformed narrative that is it’s bikes versus cars can be frustrating. And sometimes bike activists actually feed that narrative, which isn’t particularly helpful, in challenging the amount of space we have surrendered to cars. So, I think we need a narrative like we treat public health issues like the pandemic, where there is a level of expertise and information brought to the conversation that isn’t about anecdotes. That isn’t about emotion, that isn’t about “I saw this bike rider do this one thing once and that anecdote suggests that’s how all bike riders behave.”
It is amazing how much energy gets sucked out of the room in what should be a real conversation about what should make cities work better for everyone, including drivers. The people who ride bikes actually have the intellectual high ground, because bike riding is better for cities, but you can lose that high ground if you are having the wrong conversation about why we should be making bikes safer, bike infrastructure safe, more convenient, more prevalent, a more enjoyable and enticing alternative to the car. It works better for everyone, including drivers. And by the way, if you are a driver and need to, or just want to, use your car the best thing you can hope for is that biking, walking and transit is as attractive as possible. If you’re a person of color and you are actually concerned about the safety of streets and thus want to drive more—even though racism can play out in your car just as easily as in the street in the context of a police stop for example—but if that’s your perspective that’s your reality, the best thing you can hope for is other people walking, biking and taking public transport.
Again, they are not competing with you for the finite space on the road in front of you and behind you. For a disability advocate, or people talking about people with disabilities needing to drive vehicles, anyone who needs to drive vehicles, or just wants to drive vehicles because they want to take the kids to hockey on the other side of town, whatever story like that I hear from thousands of conversations with citizens around the world, anyone who feels that way, I want them to understand that it’s in all of our best interest for walking, biking and transit to be more attractive to everyone else, because the more likely other people are to not drive, the easier it is for you to drive.
Around: When we think about making these other means of transportation more attractive, and also moving away from a narrative of bikes versus cars, how has your strategy of prioritizing-versus-balancing played out in how you design these spaces?
Toderian: Well, two things I’m very specific about in my conversations about cars, I’m not anti-car, I’m very pro-city, so I very rarely discuss situations where we discuss banning the car. When the words banning the cars are used it almost never really means banning the car, it probably means emergency vehicles are allowed, it probably means that vehicles for the disabled are still allowed, it might mean taxis are allowed, delivery vehicles, there are always exceptions. So, calling it “car-light versus a car ban” is probably more accurate.
But even beyond that, there are many ways of thinking about reprioritizing the car, giving the car a different role without even having to go that far. We’ve got concept street designs from complete streets to pedestrian-priority streets, to shared streets to pedestrianized streets, fully to Dutch one-offs. There are all sorts of different variable approaches to streets that, like turning a dial, change the nature of the street, deprioritize the streets for cars, and reprioritize the streets for people. And it may not be a one-size-fits-all approach; whether for your downtown, or your particular street, there may be any number of options for how you rethink primacy of the car in that context.
The one thing I say for sure is, we do have to rethink the role, the dominance, the surrendering of public space in our cities almost entirely to the car. We do have to rethink that, but there are a lot of things in play between that and banning the car. I’m very careful about that.
The second thing you mentioned is balance-versus-prioritization, and this one I’ve been on for a few decades now. I’m not a big fan of balance when it comes to mobility. I’ve had a few thousand conversations with chief transportation officials, mayors and politicians, and what I’ve observed is that balance is usually code for the status quo, only slightly better. The only things I’ve ever seen done in the context of language like “balance” seems like usually window-dressing where at best it’s just an increase in attention to walking, biking and transit, but never anything that’s close to balance. And what I’ve actually observed is that even if your actual, real goal was balance, by definition you would have to prioritize walking, biking and transit for a few decades to even give it a chance to catch up.
The example I use—I’ll use the Imperial measurements for Americans—it’s like a 100-yard dash, or in the Paralympics a wheelchair race, and you’ve given the car a 90-yard head start. And then you’re talking about balance; by definition, even if your goal was balance, you’d have to flip the prioritization that you’ve had existing for decades, because the car has been prioritized for decades, at least since the 1960s.
I roll my eyes when I see the word balance. I don’t take it seriously in policy. I’ve never seen much evidence that it is actually being implemented in budgets or space allocation in any real way. What cities have to do is reprioritize. Vancouver is an example of that; in the 1990s, for the transportation plan, we said “not balance but prioritization.” Walking first, then biking, then good public transit, then goods movement—and then the car. We don’t ban the car, but we prioritize it last, and that is a policy decision, a leadership decision, a vision decision, that now has become much more common in cities.
I myself have helped cities set up that level of vision and policy in various cities around the world. But I always point out that establishing that policy is the easy part. The hard part is making it real. And I always say, if you want evidence of whether it’s real or not, the first thing you should look at is the budget, because the truth of our aspirations isn’t found in our vision statements, it’s found in our budgets. Where we are putting the money.
So the good news is, we are having a really candid conversion, at least I am trying to push a really candid conversation, with my city clients and government clients around the world. So, you can get the right goal, which is prioritization, you can make it real, and not just talk or do window-dressing by really having it play out in your space reallocation, your budgets and your standards, rules, policies, etcetera. And that’s how cities, real cities, are starting to make progress, by having those real conversations.
Around: I know one of the things we mentioned earlier is that we are seeing real change in taking space from cars with restaurants, in major cities like New York, moving their seating outside. There is a real financial, business, benefit to that decision. Are there financial tools, or do they already exist and we just need to illuminate them, of taking space from cars for bikes? Is there a way to tie it to financial gain for a city?
Toderian: Well, we’ve been, I actually have a hashtag I use on Twitter, #citymakingmath, and every time I find good data—and I don’t like math as a person, I always joked it was my least favorite subject in school, but I love using math as part of making a case in storytelling—because data and math can be quite powerful and influential. And financial math is particularly important.
We know from study after study after study, the more people walk, bike and take public transit, the more it saves public money, the more it saves public space. And that’s before we even calculate the almost incalculable consequences of things like climate change or racism or something like that, which has its overlap with whether infrastructure is safe for people.
So, the data is on our side, the math is on our side, the financial argument for more bike-riding in cities, safe public bike infrastructure, safe public transit and walking infrastructure in cities. It’s unassailable. It is just obvious. What is not happening is, it’s not being listened to. We are still putting the vast majority of our public money into the least effective way of getting around, the most expensive and least effective way of getting around, because of a particular ideology around personal freedom. Which is ironic, because all it creates is a freedom to be stuck in traffic.
So, the math is on our side, the data is on our side, but we are not using it effectively. I try to use it effectively, like a hammer to crush the other perspectives if you will. That sounds a bit aggressive, but I use it because it’s effective. You have to use data in a way that combines it with great storytelling about people’s lives, too. If you can combine real data with influential storytelling, that’s how you change people’s minds. That’s how you change decision makers’ minds. That’s what I find. That’s certainly a challenge.
I spend as much time, or more time, thinking about how to communicate the right things than just knowing the right things. Knowing the right things is almost the easy part. We have a tendency to make the right things sound mind-numbingly boring most of the time and we are remarkably unpersuasive compared to the forces out there that are selling the opposite argument. We all have to get better at using the financial arguments.
I’ll give you a simple example. When in Vancouver we were starting to build separated and protected bike lanes in, and connecting to, the downtown, we did it too slowly. We did it one bike lane at a time, which at the time internally I was calling pulling the Band-Aid off slowly, because one at a time you don’t get to the point where you have a network that shows success. Probably the biggest opposition to those bike lanes wasn’t ordinary citizens driving cars, it was actually the business community in the downtown who said it would kill business. It would kill retail. Because nobody shops when they ride their bike. This is the kind of narrative we hear constantly.
We know from studies that downtown retailers and businesses always over-assume how many of their customers come by car, and they always over-assume how much those customers actually spend compared to people who get there by walking, biking and transit. So, here in Vancouver, like many other places, the business community was vigorously against separated, protected bike lanes and they came out in opposition every single time.
The politicians did it anyway; they did it too slowly and would have benefited from a more complete network, but they did do it anyway. And the data, the before-and-after data, because that’s really important to collect, showed that downtown businesses not only did not die, they benefited. And having that data, and being able to take that data back to the Downtown Business Association, the business community, share that data and have the business community themselves do their own studies and determine that, yes, sure some businesses don’t particularly benefit from a bike lane and may benefit from a parking space in front more, some businesses, but not most of them.
The anecdote I always remember hearing is, the media always interviewed the owner of a wedding-dress shop and they said people don’t shop for wedding dresses on a bike. That might be true, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that might be true, but how many wedding-dress shops do you have on your main street? And we were letting the one anecdote, the worst-case scenario, somehow represent the truth for all businesses when the actual truth is most businesses benefit from bike lanes more than they benefited from on-street parking.
The cool thing here is the business community, the Downtown Business Association, learned from that data, listened to that data and what they were hearing from their own members, and then started to come out in support of more bike lanes. And now in Vancouver almost the very first speaker signed up for any bike-infrastructure-related issue in Vancouver is the Downtown Business Association. And they speak always in support, and they always start their comments with, “As you’ll recall, Mayor and Council, we used to be against separated bike lanes, because our members all thought it would be bad for business, but we have been convinced by the data,” by the actual information, not anecdote or emotion, but actual information, “that it actually benefits our members. Our members know that, and now our members want us to come out and tell you we support more.”
I’ve got to tell you, the most impactful thing for politicians is not the bike activists who have always supported bike lanes, it’s actually the people, businesses and such that used to be against them but are now supportive, because they’ve been convinced by the information. There is nothing more powerful than someone who used to have the wrong idea and has been convinced by the actual science and information. Which, by the way, is one of the challenges of politics in the United States, I think. No one ever seems to be convinced, or few people seem to be convinced, by actual science and data, which is very, very frustrating. But when you can find those organizations that actually listen to the information and data, they can become your strongest allies.
Around: When a group of businesses hears something like that but then says, “That’s all fine and dandy, but we don’t have any cyclists in our city”—I’m thinking of a quote I believe came from you, please correct me if I am wrong or misquoting you here—“It’s hard to justify a bridge by the number of people swimming across a raging, crocodile-filled river.” My understanding here being, if it’s dangerous to bike, people aren’t going to bike. But these opportunities do exist if we create the means for them to exist. Is that fair?
Toderian: Yes, that’s my quote. I’m not the first person to say it, it’s like one of those old sayings your mother used to say, I think. I modified it quite a bit, “raging crocodile” is my latest iteration. But the point of it is, and it’s true of walking infrastructure, it’s true of public transit, you can’t assume the demand for something based on the people who are trying to use it when it’s horrible or dangerous and that’s true of many things. What you have to do is actually decide: “Do you want people in your city to ride bikes?” Not decide: “Are they riding bikes.” It is a question of visions. If the answer is yes, we want people to ride bikes, then you figure out the way to achieve that, including safe infrastructure but not just limited to that. And who are you doing this infrastructure for? Do you want it to be all ages and abilities? Do you want it to address racial issues and racial concerns? Who is going to use it and who is going to benefit?
You have those conversations and then you decide—and that’s a much better way to make decisions about infrastructure than looking around not seeing any bikes then concluding you don’t need any bike infrastructure. It’s actually ludicrous that professionals would ever say something like that or conclude something like that. And the truth is, it’s even worse than that. Not only are decisions made based on looking around and seeing if anyone is riding a bike, it’s even worse than that. You actually need to, before infrastructure is made safe, particularly in the case of pedestrian infrastructure, people actually need to die before there will be an improvement.
And it won’t be an improvement to make walking attractive or enjoyable, it will just be the bare minimum to hopefully not have the next person die. It’s actually quite ludicrous the mindset we have set into our “infrastructure warrant systems,” as they are called, where not only do people have to die, but a lot of people have to die before infrastructure will be fixed.
So there is a level of insanity in the way “professional,” and I use that in quotes relative to the way decisions are made to make infrastructure safe, that isn’t even a lack of vision, it’s not even a good response. It’s not even a good response to actual people dying, where you have to keep track of a number of people dying, before someone will make the bare minimum move. I’m describing the worst-case scenario, but frankly the worst-case scenario is remarkably common in a lot of North American cities.
Around: That’s a dark situation. I know, growing up, we didn’t get a light outside my neighborhood until there were a certain number of car accidents, and a certain number of people died, which is a scary thing when you realize that is how some of this infrastructure works. I am wondering if there is the potential for a leap past that. I’m thinking of a concept I have heard you speak on before, about the Law of Congestion, which, my understanding, is that if you add another lane to a highway to reduce congestion and traffic time, inversely, you actually increase the car usage on the freeway, you increase wait times and you increase traffic.
Toderian: You increase driving right off the bat. The Law of Congestion is also called induced demand, induced traffic or induced driving. In other words, you induce it by providing the infrastructure, you make people who weren’t driving because of the congestion reconsider that decision and maybe they drive more trips each day, or they are willing to commute longer, because some capacity has been added. And thus, that capacity gets quickly filled up.
It’s called the Law of Congestion because it’s a law. Study after study has shown that this is the truth, and yet we keep trying to do it anyway. Every politician who has ever opened a road in a ribbon-cutting ceremony has said that those new lanes, or that new road, will reduce congestion even though we know that’s a lie.
What we know is that within about three years 50 percent of the new capacity is filled up and within about 15 years 100 percent, or even 120 percent of it, will fill up. At best you are getting a three- to five-year slight improvement until it fills up again, and then you need to have that whole multibillion-dollar conversation again. Why? Because what you have done is just fed the narrative that the only way to get around is driving, and you’ve been diverting money away from all the other ways of getting around that would actually cost less, take less space, have better health outcomes, better climate outcomes, better equity outcomes, better outcomes in just about every way you measure, because you’ve been putting billions of dollars into infrastructure that, ironically, we know will fail at its stated objective, which is to solve congestion.
There is an old phrase that I quoted to a number of folks in city building, from Lewis Mumford in 1955, way back in 1955, where he said, “Adding new lanes to address congestion is like loosening your belt to reduce obesity.” In other words, the more you build, the more you loosen your belt, the more you eat…the more roads you build, the more you drive. If you want to change that pattern, the cool thing is, the reverse is actually true. When you take away lanes of traffic, you don’t get more congestion. People are not like water through a pipe or gas through a pipe, people make different decisions including where they live, where they work, how often they drive, how they get around, and that capacity situation changes, it improves and you don’t get more congestion as long as you provide other options like walking, biking and transit infrastructure. So the good news is, there are solutions to all of this. The bad news is, our politicians, decision makers and a lot of our transportation professionals are still ignoring those proven solutions.
Around: And so, if a city takes a leap and utilizes what they know about the Law of Congestion and uses it for bikes and walking instead of for cars, creating the infrastructure and allowing it to fill up, do cities see those results in the same way highways see those results? The increase in usage of those systems of transportation? Walking and biking?
Toderian: The obvious example is Paris, right now. A lot of North Americans think Paris is like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, that there are bikes everywhere and nobody drives. Clearly those people have not been to Paris in the last decade. Paris was a city choking in cars, literally choking, because of the air pollution, and if you ever tried to get around anywhere in a taxi or in a bus, ironically as part of public transit, you could spend half an hour trying to turn a corner because the city was close to paralyzed. Within weeks, let alone decades, within weeks during the pandemic, the number of people riding bikes in Paris because of the transformation of safe bike infrastructure has been remarkable. People are comparing it to Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and it is remarkable.
It feeds the narrative of, if you not only provide the infrastructure but do a good job with it, don’t just have one-off lanes connecting not much with not much, but have a complete network, make it safe, make it work for all ages and abilities, connect it with other ways of getting around like buses and trains, so trips can be multi-modal not just bike trips, provide the infrastructure like safe bike parking, and all the other elements to make it successful, if you do it well, the numbers will be shocking. And they can happen really quick.
I point out to people: Paris, it can’t be written off as just another European city that is different than North America, because it was choking in cars. The truth is though, I would rather not cite Paris, I’d rather cite North American cities, because we have a tendency in North America to roll our eyes at European examples and say, “Well they’re different because of …,” fill in the blank. Well, the truth is, any North American city that does the same thing will have the same results.
The problem is, North American cities are not doing the same thing and, ironically, we use that as evidence that we can’t change. We don’t build safe infrastructure, people don’t bike and then we say, “See no one will ever bike here.” It’s actually a ludicrous logical fallacy. If we did the same thing Paris did, we would get similar results, but we haven’t.
What we have seen during the pandemic is a big spike by North American standards in bike use and that is evidence that things can change here even though, frankly, the moves we have been making in North America pale in comparison to the boldness of European cities. We are still seeing a so-called “bike boom” in North America, including a massive jump in bike purchasing, even by doing the relatively small or less ambitious changes that we have been doing in North America as compared to European or Latin American cities.
Around: For people who hear things like that, and are maybe cyclists splitting their time between driving and cycling, or are drivers and like the sounds of the benefits of these things to their cities and communities, what can individuals do to help make those changes happen in their cities?
Toderian: It for sure starts with a mindset shift. And I just want to obliterate this narrative that speaks about bikes versus cars, or bikes versus transit. Cities, and particularly more urban cities, only work when there are lots of enjoyable ways to get around, lots of practical ways to get around, including the car. I don’t think the car is going to go anywhere, but car dependency has to go away, we have to redesign car dependency out of our cities and suburbs— not the car, but car dependency.
And in the most urban places, like downtown Manhattan, we might talk about more significant things; but most of North America is not Manhattan, so we are not going to have a similar conversation. The car is not going to go away, but the car dependency cannot continue, because the cost and consequences of it are just too significant. So I think we have to change the conversation, change the narrative. Polarization doesn’t help; so-called aggressive bike activism, I think, does the bike community a disservice because it puts one party against another instead of pulling up the conversation and asking how will this work better for everyone?
What I say to the bike activists is, you win that debate. If you have the debate about how this works for everyone, you win that debate. You lose that debate by making it seems like, I like my bike better than I like your car, which is a reductionist argument, which you lose because that’s an emotional conversation. And I think the car owners win, car drivers, car sellers and car dependency win emotional debates, whereas multimodal advocates win a fact-based debate.
Around: Fantastic. I know one thing that makes me feel better; you said Paris had recent changes, but also cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, something that made me feel better, was learning about these cities that we think of as biking meccas and utopias, were not always that way. And they did have these downtown highways. Does that give you, should that give me and cyclists everywhere, hope that that kind of change is possible in their cities? Even if it seems like such an uphill battle?
Toderian: Three things I do because I work in contexts all over the world. Even if you roll your eyes at the Amsterdams and the Copenhagens and even the Parises, never underestimate the power of inspiration. The idea that you can see something that is completely different than what you have and be inspired by it. Not to think you can copy it perfectly, but that you can rethink what you assume was possible in your city. Never underestimate the power of inspiration and competition. I actually really like stoking competition between different cities because that can actually get mayors to do things faster than they actually would.
Secondly, I say, I always point out that those cities that inspire us weren’t always that way. So you can’t write them off as always having been different, because the facts are that European cities before the 1970s’ oil crisis had bought in full force, had put their foot on the gas toward full car-culture learning from North America, because everyone thought North America had it right back then. And they were choking in cars and choking in traffic. It was the oil crisis that made European cities rethink that. So, a lot of this is about how you rethink things in the face of a crisis like our pandemic crisis right now. So, you can’t write off those cities as having always been that way, because they weren’t. We hit that point over and over again. That’s the second point I make.
The third point I make is, there are times when I don’t want to talk about Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Paris at all. It’s still too easy for the lazy thinkers out there to just say, “We aren’t like …,” fill in the blank, “Because of…” fill in the blank. I like using North American cities who are doing remarkable things by North American standards. I like similar size, vintage, scale and nature that are doing things, so I am constantly looking for different cities of different nature who are doing different things, particularly in North America, and saying, “Listen, if they are doing it, what’s your excuse?” They’re not Copenhagen sure, but they’ve doubled their urban biking share within five years, or something like that. Even if it’s doubling a low number, that’s still significant and here is how they did it.
Similarly, as an example, Vancouver is the first North American city to get to double-digits bike commuting—I think it’s about 11 percent now and the next closest is about 6 or 7, I think, 5 or 6 percent. And you know, I make sure to show those stats, when I’m working with my European clients or my Latin American clients and they always chuckle politely because it’s such a low number by their standards, but they do understand that by North American standards that’s a transformation. And the fact is that Vancouver is picking up speed. Our bike-mode share is increasing faster and faster as we get better and better at all this, which is the beauty of all this. The first bit is actually the hardest and then you sort of hit your stride. It’s really important to be able to use a more obvious, comparable example from your continent, because that can’t be written off easily. I always call Vancouver the city you couldn’t ignore, because it is doing remarkable things but it’s not in Europe or it’s not overseas; it’s in good ol’ North America and it grew up around car culture, and grew up in a time when cars were dominant, so all these excuses other cities used as to why they can’t be like European cities, Vancouver had those excuses and did it anyway.
I break it down into those three pieces because I’m not choosing one horse to ride or one bike if you will. I make all three of those arguments. One, we should never be willing to underestimate the power of inspiration and competition. Two, the cities we are inspired by were not always that way. And three, there are cities that are a lot like you that are doing significant things right now, so what’s your excuse?
Around: Fantastic, Brent. I want to thank you so much for your time and expertise. For people who want to learn more about you and what you’re doing, where can they find out more?
Toderian: I do a lot of writing. I’ve written for Fast Company on many things in city building, not just on bikes, but many elements of better city building. I write for Fast Company, I’ve written for the Huffington Post and many other publications. Most people find me on Twitter @BrentToderian, so if you’re on Instagram or TikTok, or folks like that, you probably won’t find me as easily, but I’m very active on Twitter and share a lot of information there, so that’s probably the easiest way to keep tabs on what I’m working on.
(This interview was edited in part for clarity.)